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I Watched This Game: Canucks ruin Horvat's return with comeback win over Islanders

Horvat: "I had a lot of good times here — a lot of firsts and a lot of memories — so it was a special night."
The Vancouver Canucks came back from two goals down to beat the New York Islanders in overtime on Wednesday night.

As Bo Horvat returned to Vancouver for his first game since getting traded to the New York Islanders, a big question heading into the game was how fans would greet him.

Would fans cheer for their former captain, who gave nine seasons of his career to the Canucks during one of the most dismal eras in franchise history? Or would they boo Horvat in retaliation to comments he made that came off as an attack on Vancouver fans?

Turns out, it was a little bit of both.

The moment hit Horvat early, as he had misty eyes during warm-up. Many Canucks fans made their way to the Islanders’ side of the ice bearing signs and wearing Horvat jerseys and the support clearly touched his heart.

“I was emotional through the whole warm-up,” said Horvat. “It brought back a ton of memories.” 

When Horvat first touched the puck during the game, however, there were some light, scattered boos, which grew on subsequent touches as fans felt emboldened. Whether it was fans upset about the comments he made last season or just sending a message that he, as a member of an opposing team, is now the enemy, the boo birds were out in force.

But then the Canucks played a tribute video for Horvat at the first stoppage and the arena treated Horvat to a standing ovation, the fans’ appreciation for Horvat roaring far louder than any boos.

Horvat was verklempt, lifting his stick to the crowd with tears in his eyes.

“Just the whole tribute and everybody, the way they reacted, it just meant a lot to me,” said Horvat. “It was pretty special and I had a lot of good times here, a lot of firsts and a lot of memories, so it was a special night.”

Some of his friends with the Canucks came over and showed Horvat some love as well, even if that love took a different form for some of them.

“I went up to him and told him to stop crying like a baby,” joked J.T. Miller. “He’s an unreal guy, a good friend, a good teammate, and a really good hockey player. I’m really glad he got the ovation that he did and to see him emotional, it’ll choke you up.”

Horvat was the story of the game itself in a lot of ways. He drew the first penalty of the game, leading to the opening goal for the Islanders. He dominated puck possession at 5-on-5, out-battling the J.T. Miller line for most of the night. He scored a key goal for the Islanders to restore a two-goal lead after the Canucks had cut into it in the second period. 

But he also was on the ice for the Canucks’ final three goals of the night, as the Islanders coughed up that two-goal lead. He even looked directly at fault (but wasn’t) on the Canucks’ overtime game-winner, scored by the new captain who replaced Horvat, Quinn Hughes.

There was something poetic about seeing Hughes sprint away from Horvat in overtime, the new captain breaking away from the old captain to create something new: a Canucks team that comes back from two-goal leads instead of giving them up.

The Canucks let the past die — killed it, if they had to — to become what they were meant to be when I watched this game.  

  • There was a last-minute change to the lineup as Pius Suter didn’t take the ice for warm-up. He was replaced by Nils Höglander, who had been a healthy scratch against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday. Suter is day-to-day according to head coach Rick Tocchet. 
  • Noah Juulsen started the game on a pairing with Hughes, which is understandable: the Canucks don’t really have the depth to keep Hughes and Filip Hronek together with Carson Soucy out long term. Tocchet and defence coach Adam Foote put Ian Cole with Hronek to try to create a solid second pairing and hope that Hughes could carry Juulsen, and provide easier match-ups for Mark Friedman on his off-side on the third pairing with Tyler Myers. 
  • Of course, all that went out the window during the game because the Canucks needed to come back from a two-goal deficit and also got six power plays, causing plenty of mixed pairings. Juulsen and Friedman barely saw the ice in the second and third periods, while Hughes’s ice time climbed to a whopping 29:24. You know what they said about the best-laid plans of mice, men, and NHL head coaches. They gang aft agley.
  • This game could have gone very differently if not for a brilliant save by Thatcher Demko just two minutes into the game. The net was seemingly wide open for Oliver Wahlstrom, but Demko put up the closed sign faster than Future Shop with a stunning kick save.
  • Ian Cole got the Canucks in penalty trouble, first with a hook on Horvat, then by hoisting the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty when he had time and space to make a better play. The two penalties might have been shrugged off if not for the Islanders turning the four minutes of power play time into just 44 seconds with two quick goals. 
  • “We actually looked at it after the first period, talked about it and addressed it,” said Tyler Myers about the penalty kill. “It’s not like they’re big mistakes, but just two-three feet here and there that I think we can tweak.”
  • “It wasn’t so much the seams,” said Tocchet. “The Islanders go downhill and I don’t think we got a block — Dakota Joshua was just a little late on the flexing out [on the first goal]. We like them to go out sideways, our technique of blocking shots. And then Petey got screwed up — he dove in [on the second goal] and that allowed the other flanker.”
  • They didn’t get a chance to prove they’d ironed out their penalty kill issues as they didn’t take any more penalties the rest of the game — not a bad problem to have.
  • Tyler Myers is 6’8” and awfully hard to miss, which is why it was hilarious to see him escape notice on an icing call late in the first period. He wasn’t supposed to be able to change but surreptitiously snuck onto the bench and was replaced by Noah Juulsen with the on-ice officials none the wiser. That’s a veteran move.
  • “If they’re not going to say anything, may as well,” said Myers with a laugh. “I think it happens more than you think…I was close to the bench when it happened, so I made sure I sat down pretty fast.”
  • It still feels like the rest of the league isn’t fully aware of how physical Elias Pettersson plays, with so many people still thinking of him as the spindly twig he was when he was drafted. The best thing about Pettersson’s physical game is how tactical it is: he doesn’t hit to hurt, but to win the puck, like this beautifully-timed open-ice hit on Alexander Romanov early in the second period.
  • The Canucks’ comeback was fueled by their power play, which scored all three of their regulation goals, but their power play was fueled by how they took over the game at 5-on-5 and drew six power plays in the second and third periods. Andrei Kuzmenko and Dakota Joshua drew two penalties each, with Conor Garland and Mark Friedman drawing the other two.
  • The Canucks’ first goal came after nearly two full minutes in the offensive zone, capped off by a brilliant cross-seam pass by Pettersson to J.T. Miller for a bit of an awkward one-timer that snuck under Ilya Sorokin’s glove on the short side. Some subtle movement by Brock Boeser helped open up the passing lane, while Kuzmenko deserves kudos for his quick puck retrieval after missing the net on an earlier chance.
  • “I actually didn’t [know it went in],” said Miller. “I just heard the post and I couldn’t see the puck at all.”
  • That goal doesn’t happen without a couple of brilliant keep-ins at the blue line by Hughes. Regrettably, the more impressive of the two holds was completely obscured by the boards on the television broadcast. From the vantage point of the pressbox, the way Hughes raced to the boards to casually keep in a bouncing puck with his skate was utterly sublime. He does this kind of thing so often that it starts to seem routine, like a blind backhand saucer pass from Henrik Sedin.
  • Hughes somewhat undermined the sublimity of the rest of his game with a brutal turnover in the defensive zone that led to Horvat’s 3-1 goal. He made a slick spin move to leave Simon Holmstrom in his dust — or ice chips, I guess — but his bank pass to Miller was picked off by Mathew Barzal, who played catch with Horvat before the former Canucks captain blasted a one-timer through Demko.
  • Brock Boeser paid tribute to Horvat with the Canucks’ second goal, setting up in Horvat’s former office in the bumper and firing home a lovely little saucer pass from Miller. You’d think Horvat would have seen that one coming; instead, he only saw it as it happened three feet away from him.
  • The goal, Boeser’s 13th of the season in 16 games, moved the Canucks winger into a tie for first in the NHL in goalscoring with Auston Matthews and Kyle Connor. It’s like he’s fulfilling the promise of his rookie season when it seemed like 40 goals per season was going to be the minimum expectation for Boeser rather than a pipe dream. Now, he’s on pace for 66 goals and it’s barely in the top five of wild statistics for the start of the Canucks season.
  • On a delayed call, Kuzmenko drew an additional penalty, giving the Canucks a two-minute 5-on-3 power play, but it didn’t end well for Kuzmenko, as he took a rising slap shot from Miller off the face. It was an ugly scene, as he fell to the ice immediately and was thrashing in agony.  As medical staff attended to him, Horvat stayed close to his former teammate, which was a nice touch, and Kuzmenko was fortunately able to leave the ice under his own power.
  • “He was smiling in here after the game,” said Miller. “I felt awful hitting him in the face with the puck but he’ll be ready to roll.”
  • Filip Hronek came on to replace Kuzmenko on the 5-on-3, giving the Canucks a bigger shot from the point. It was a good call, as Hughes put one right in Hronek’s wheelhouse and he unloaded on it, sending a hellacious blast past a Miller screen to tie the game. The shot was reportedly 107.9 miles per hour, which is bonkers for a shot in a game.
  • “The Islanders played one up, two back — to me, it was just that high roll,” said Tocchet. “It’s either Huggy shoots it with traffic or you get the one-timer. Fil’s got a great shot, obviously. I don’t think any goalie could have stopped that.”
  • This was such a small moment, but I just love how Hughes denied a dump-in with his glove late in the third period. The puck was chipped in and Hughes showed lightning reflexes to snap his glove up to casually grab the puck, drop it to his stick, and chip it back out into the neutral zone. Again, it seems so routine, but it really isn’t.
  • Miller and Hughes combined on the overtime winner, as Miller looped back into the defensive zone while Hughes made like Tyler Myers changing on an icing call and disappeared from notice. While Horvat trailed behind Hughes, it was actually Barzal that left Hughes alone and Miller sent Hughes in alone on a breakaway. Hughes went upstairs faster than a teenager avoiding her parents, beating Sorokin over the glove before the goaltender even had time to react.
  • “Right away, I thought we were going to do a give-and-go,” said Miller. “When I turned, I don’t know who the D-man was, but I saw he was gapped up, so I turned completely away from him and then [Hughes] screamed for it, so I spun and guessed and [the pass] happened to be towards him… Those little give-and-goes through the neutral zone, you get some forwards playing D and it’s uncomfortable.”
  • With Miller assisting on the Hughes winner, the two moved into a tie for first place on the Canucks in scoring with Pettersson, all of them with 26 points. Oh, sorry, that should read that all three are tied for first place in the NHL in scoring with 26 points. Yes, the NHL’s leading scorer is the Canucks Cerberus of Miller, Petterssson, and Hughes. What even is this season?
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